A Landscape of Sound

These Eastern Woods, pine and hemlock, maple and birch, are a place of sound.  I am habituated to depend on my eyes – as are most of us, I believe – but this place is so full of ambient sound that if I were deprived of my sight, somehow prevented from sensing with my eyes, I feel sure this place would come alive for me through sound.

In fact, I have found, puttering around this stout cabin, these shady lands, that in this place hearing is more keen than eyesight.  How often I have heard a whistling birdsong or the echoing knock of a woodpecker – and not seen its maker!  When I can’t see, I can still know.

Two days ago an enormous crack split the woods, a precipitous sound both startling and exciting.  I was inside but I heard it plainly.  Then, following close, the wrenching sound of falling, the breaking of branches and the upheaval of earth.  It all culminated in a booming thump and crash that seemed to roll through the woods like thunder, lingering in the air and falling off slowly.  The lasting reverberations I felt more than heard.

(When a tree falls in the forest, it makes a sound.  Be sure of that.  Sorry.  Couldn’t resist.)

My first thought was of the kids and I hurried out to the front porch.  I didn’t know where they were at that moment and for all their scampering and knocking about in the woods, I thought it could have been them pushing over a tree. (!)  An absurd thought it was and easily dispelled.  The kids, of course, were safely perched on their favorite boulder and just as rapt by the sound as I.  They sat there, all three, frozen where they had been when the first crack sounded, staring off through the timber with wide eyes.

“Did you see it?” I called to them.

They hadn’t.  “It was over there!”  They all pointed.

“What was it?” my youngest said.

The instinct to look for what one hears is not mysterious.  With just a few notions – evolution, self preservation, natural selection – it is easy to see, so to speak, why we do it.

But much goes on in the woods that I hear and never see, and my world, the suburban world of career and commute, is seldom so invisible.  It is disconcerting at first to be so suddenly reacquainted with the significance of sound.  But it is a necessary upset.  It is disconcerting in the way one knows one needs to be disconcerted, a healthy kind of growth.

It is like recovering from an injury I didn’t know I had sustained, learning to hear again.  I didn’t know, wasn’t aware, that I was slowly going deaf.  Like seeing through prescription lenses for the first time – I hadn’t known what I wasn’t seeing.

Ultimately, the desire to see is too strong, the spectacle is irresistible.  Later that afternoon, we all went to investigate the epicenter.  A large white birch, having grown over the years on a bending angle in search of light, now lay in an awkward sprawl across the road to the upper header.  It had taken with it two other trees, both small hemlocks.  We stood and surveyed the scene.  The ground uphill where the tree had stood and the roots had broken was a chaos, like a bomb crater, stones and soil, moss and roots still hanging in the air.  The heavy trunk lay where it had landed, ponderously inert in the deep rut it tore in the ground.  You could almost hear the reverberant thud all over again.

“Wow!” my youngest said.  It was all any of us could say.

The acoustics of this sylvan venue, this landscape of sound, are astounding, enviable for any theatre, lecture hall, or symphony space – because the woods are, of course, all of those things.  But the imagination is always second to the real thing.  A live encounter always requires actually being there.

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